World War II ‘birds of war’ land in Boca Raton
By Donovan Ortega
The ‘Wings of Freedom’ exhibit made a triumphant return to Boca Raton last weekend. The exhibition was made possible by the Collings Foundation and featured three essential tools in America’s victory in World War II—the B-17 and B-24 bombers along with the P-51 Mustang. The planes have been restored to their original condition. They look, sound, and fly just as they would have in the 1940’s.
On Sunday, January 30th, crowds lined up to take unguided tours of the nostalgic yet intimidating aircraft. The ancient ‘birds of war’ were in stark contrast to the sleek corporate jets that landed and took off from the Boca Raton Airport runway only 100 yards away. Children ran beneath the bomber’s hulls and pointed excitedly while their parents attempted to corral their intuitive youngsters. But everyone seemed to be impressed by the solidity of aircraft usually only seen in postcards, books, and in History Channel specials. The Boca Raton Fire Rescue Explorers—a youth fire training program—sold hotdogs, cokes, and candy underneath a tent. When asked if they pretended like they were soldiers while walking through the bombers, they all agreed.
“Of course,” said one young man. “You have to get into character.”
Luckily, a “character” was in attendance and he had a little more hands on knowledge than most. Gerald Fahrer flew 51 combat missions in the B- 24 ‘Liberator’. He was one of the few veterans at the event. Fahrer spoke enthusiastically with those on hand, telling and re-telling tales of his exploits while walking in the shadows of airplanes he once flew. In a short time he rattled off a number of war stories to interested onlookers, offering his decidedly unique perspective to the ancient relics of World War II. His memory was sharp and lucid as he described a serendipitous audience with the pope while on leave in Italy, shooting red warning flares at confused American forces while taking down a ‘wounded’ B-24 in an abandoned field, flying into the black smoke of a burning oil refinery on a bombing mission in the Alps, the majestic sight of 1,100 aircraft in the sky at the same time, and the horror of being wounded in the cockpit and attempting to fly his B-24 back to safety with an injured arm.
The worst part about being wounded was the knowledge that his fellow soldiers were hurt as well, recalled Fahrer.
“When I looked back, the flight deck was covered in the blood,” he said.
Fahrer was quick to mention the bravery and commitment of his fellow soldiers and how fortunate he feels to have survived the war.
“We lost 80 percent of our men,” he said. “When we have reunions, most of the men there were a part of the ground crews.”
Gerald reminisced about his re-entrance into America after the war. He was on a boat cruising into New York harbor. He said that he looked up and the first thing he saw was a parachute jumper. The sight struck him so deeply that he said he fell to his knees and thanked God.
“Every day is a bonus. That’s the way I live my life,” said Fahrer.
It wasn’t all misty remembrances, however. Fahrer was still feisty about the rivalry between B-24 and B-17 flight crews. He refused to have his picture taken in front of the B-17, walking steadfastly across the lot to the B-24 to pose.
“The B-17 boys used to say, ‘we fly higher and faster than you,’” said Fahrer. “We say in return, ‘in your dreams you did.’”